The day I got to meet ICED EARTH, one of my favorite bands, was a particularly hot one. Not even a cold beer could remedy that. But even though I thought it couldn’t get any hotter, I did not take into account the bright spotlights illuminating the small studio right outside of Belgrade, Serbia. Mainman Jon Schaffer and singer Stu Block were patiently observing the set as new guitarist Jake Dreyer was shooting his scenes. “Hi, we’re the groupies,” I said as I shook Jon’s hand. “We’re the best they could find,” I tried to joke to break the ice. It didn’t really work as I imagined it would. Curse you YouTube motivational speakers for making me believe otherwise.
Jon was incredibly kind to sit down with us in spite of the busy filming schedule that did not benefit from a flight delay the band had experienced on their way here. We spoke to the fearless leader of the band, Shaka Zulu as his bandmates call him and his vest proudly boasts, about their latest album, the importance of music videos in today’s industry, the independence granted to the band by building their own headquarters, the upcoming Demons & Wizards album and more.
Your new album “Incorruptible” has been out for a month now. How do you like the reception so far? You said before that you thought the album was special, do you think fans and the press get the same feeling too?
Jon Schaffer: Yeah, definitely. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. So it’s cool and we’re very happy with it.
You had the chance to play some of the new songs live, do you feel like you have a few songs that are going to have a permanent spot on your list as fan favorites?
Jon: I think there will be at least three or four songs in the set. The fans always decide. We are monitoring what their reactions are, and I know we are going to do at least five or six songs from the new album on the headline tour. We believe they are strong enough to warrant that.
You have a new guitar player in Jake Dreyer, how did he fit the band. In what way did his contributions help shape “Incorruptible”?
Jon: Well, he came into it late so the writing was done by the time Jake came in for an audition. But he contributed with the guitar solos, and they are amazing. It’s killer stuff and I think he’s got more of a metal style than Troy Seele. Troy is an amazing player, and he can do bluegrass, hard rock and blues and metal and everything. But Jake’s heart is really metal and you can hear it.
You are in Belgrade shooting a video for “Black Flag”. You did not have a video for the last album, what made you decide to shoot one now?
Jon: The time is right. It was Maurizio from Kataklysm who recommended these guys. And they showed me the shots from the Ex Deo video and I thought it was amazing. We did one video for “Dystopia” and we didn’t do a video for “Plagues of Babylon”. We did actually shoot a video for “Peacemaker” and “Cthulhu”, but we didn’t release them because they weren’t that good. And we had the drummer change in the middle because we had the fill-in guys while Brent Smedley was away. They just weren’t really great videos from my memory and we just decided not to put them out there.
Do you think videos are still important now that there’s next to none screen time on TV?
Jon: I don’t know man. That’s the thing, I’ve never been a big fan of doing videos. But this is a special occasion because I think it’s going to be really cool and it’s got a really cool story behind it. So if we are going to be doing a video this is the way. I have a good feeling about the outcome even though we haven’t seen anything yet, but I think based on what these guys can do it’s going to be really cool. But I don’t know if it’s really important. I guess for YouTube hits it is, but music is just not marketed the same way as it was. And I don’t know how much it really helps with promotion. It must help some, but I don’t know how to gauge that.
You did release a couple of lyric videos prior to the album release, so I guess that’s a good way to promote it. It’s better to have an official track out there getting all the hits and likes rather than a bootlegged recording.
Jon: Yeah, but I don’t really mind that. That’s something for the labels. They want the hits. They get the bulk of the money.
Why did you choose to visualize this particular track?
Jon: Well, we all feel like this is an Iced Earth classic. And the subject matter really fits with us and our lifestyle. And everybody, including our management, thought that was the song. A lot of people think it’s the hit on the record. Clearly, out of the lyric videos “Raven Wing” was the hit. But it’s just the right thing for us to do. But there’s a lot of strong stuff. We may end up doing another video later to further promote this. But we wanted this one to be out by the time our headline tour starts in America.
I have to agree with the general sentiment, “Raven Wing” is amazing. It’s definitely my favorite on the album. It could have easily fit into any of the legendary albums.
Jon: Thank you, man. It’s a good song.
One big thing I really wanted to talk to you about is the fact that you’ve built your own band facilities, including a studio, offices, and whatnot. How did you get this idea, and is it proving to be a good idea so far?
Jon: This has been something I wanted to do for several years, and yes it was a good choice. Absolutely! It’s going to make the recording process awesome because I’m going to be at my place. It already sounds awesome, the drum sounds are killer on the record. And that’s always one of the biggest challenges, getting the drum sound. The room is perfect and the control room is great too. I still have some work to do to really dial it in before I’d ever want to consider mixing there. But right now it’s a great tracking studio. Just having a headquarters building puts us in a position where we can be more independent, which is what we’re going for. As time goes on and with the changing of the music industry, to keep everything under one roof keeps our costs down and gives us more control and more freedom.
Do you think you will one day be able to put out records independently, without a label?
Jon: Oh, yeah. We definitely can. I think that’s coming. What the next deal is going to look like, it’s going to be very different than anything we’ve had before. We will work with record companies, but it’s going to be more of a marketing situation. It’s not going to represent the slavery model of the music business, those days are gone.
Speaking of marketing, it has become a huge part of the music industry. And with the rise of the Internet, it’s never been easier or more accessible. But to most bands when you mention marketing efforts, they get immediately triggered and link marketing to selling out. How important do you think marketing is today to established and upcoming bands alike?
Jon: Well, it’s totally important and has nothing to do with selling out. You can market yourself in an authentic way that’s real. That’s what we do. But you have to. There are costs in doing all of this stuff. I know some people are very delusional about the way all of this works. But airplane flights cost money, and cruises cost money and we need to eat. So you have to have a marketing plan, I think probably now more than ever. Because you don’t have the physical sales like that used to be, which means the budgets are smaller than they used to be. And you really have to figure out how you are going to stand out from the others. It’s hugely important.
For me, it’s always been about the artwork and trying to make really bad ass album covers regardless of what the art team is. And that’s one of the things I think we do a really good job with. And I know I pioneered doing artwork for the individual songs on the “Horror Show” album. And a lot of bands are doing it now. And on this album, we went really far with it, because seven out of ten panels could be album covers themselves. The art team did an amazing job on this record.
But you need to be authentic in whatever you do. Because if you aren’t then you are getting into the world of selling out because you’re posing, doing something that you’re not. That’s different.
One thing we’re also seeing more and more are gimmicks, as more and more bands are emerging like Ghost and Babymetal that have that extra something. What are your thoughts on that, do bands need to have something extra on top of their music in order to break out?
Jon: I’m not really a gimmick guy, but I’m a Ghost fan so I’m not against it. If it’s something that’s authentic, and there’s no better way to say it, then it’s cool. There’s obviously the theatrical aspect to what we do, but Iced Earth has always been a metal band. What you see is what you get. Both on stage and off, we’re just real dudes. We live and breathe this shit because it’s in us. Our former management thought we had to come up with some form of a gimmick, something that’s going to make you stand out. And I told them “No, the music is what we do. It’s not about that.”
But is it easier for younger bands, because so many of them are doing the same thing? Before when you get a new album on a cassette you didn’t have anything else to listen to and you’d listen the shit out of it. Now there’s so many new music online, so it may be hard for bands to break out.
Jon: Yes, that’s a valid point. But if you write good songs and put your heart and soul into it, people are going to see that it’s good.
A decade ago, Iced Earth was really hard to catch live apart from some huge festivals. Now you’re touring all the time. How important is touring for you today and how stressful is it, because you definitely upped your game. You’ve been to Europe five or more times since you’ve released “Dystopia”.
Jon: Yeah, definitely more. We really did tour quite a bit and we’d always do European and American tours. These last few album cycles have been more extensive, especially the European legs. Instead of just visiting Central Europe and the UK, Scandinavia, we started doing the Eastern part as well. We came to Serbia for the first time during the “Dystopia” tour and on “Plagues…” tour too. And we did a lot of countries, we also played Sarajevo on the “Plagues…” tour. We’ve played China, Israel, and Russia.
But it’s stressful, dude. There’s no doubt. It’s hard on the body and most people can’t do what we do. They just get wiped out after two days of travel, and we do it for two or three months. We rest a little bit and we go out again. But we’re going to have a slightly different philosophy going forward, making it about the quality not the quantity of shows. Because it is hard for us. We were completely exhausted towards the end of the “Plagues…” tour. Besides, there’s my neck problem and all of that shit that went on.
It takes its toll and we were very tired, but I believe everything happens the way it is supposed to be. When we took that break to build our headquarters that refreshed the band for sure. And you can hear it. When we were doing “Plagues of Babylon” we were doing festivals on the weekends in Germany. We did two massive world tours back to back. We were given a three-month window to make that record from top to bottom. It’s a good record, but I don’t think it’s one of the greatest records in our catalog. I think it has some really high moments on it. But that was one of the main reasons I decided I’m not going to put myself in that situation again, I’m going to build my own studio. We don’t want to do it that way. We want to take our time in the pre-production and the recording process and have the real control of what we’re getting. I’ve worked with three different studios for “Plagues of Babylon” in Germany, and it was a nightmare. Until the mastering, that guy was amazing. But the rest of it was very difficult. That’s when I said never again (laughs).
Well, it helps to be your own boss.
Jon: I’ve had my own studio. We did all of “Crucible of Man” and “Framing Armageddon” there. The pre-production stuff for “Dystopia” was also done there. But I sold that property. And it wasn’t a headquarters thing, it was just a building I recorded stuff at. But this is definitely much more. We built the walls the way we wanted them to control the audio.
Do you think younger bands could also apply this model of operation and make it work for them as well?
Jon: Yes, I think it’s inevitable and it’s going to happen. If you want to survive in this game and thrive, not just survive, you have to look at what’s coming. The cool thing about metal is that it’s the music that’s the least affected by the changes because there’s still a good amount of fans that want to buy the physical product. And vinyl is making a really strong comeback. We’ve seen that in the States and we’ve seen that in Europe. It’s always been there but it’s getting very popular again, so that’s really cool.
Another thing I was really thrilled about is reading that you’ve started working on a new Demons & Wizards album with Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian. How did it come about?
Jon: We’ve been talking about that for years, but now we actually made the commitment to do it. And we started working on it. It’s always been really tough to get our schedules to line up, but we’re going to do it. I can’t ‘say when it’s going to be finished, we’re really early in the process. And now I’ve got a new record coming out and Hansi is doing on the classical record, singing in the studio. I hope by 2018 or 2019 at the latest we’ll have the record finished. We’ve done two songs and they are pretty cool. I’ve got another instrumental piece to send over to Hansi to work on.
Like I said, whenever he can get to it. It’s hard for me to get into the songwriting mode when I’m bouncing back and forth to Europe. This is my fourth trip to Europe in six weeks. It’s pretty intense. So it’s hard to get into that, that meditative state to get connected to the music. I want to make the Demons & Wizards album killer, so I want to do it right. So it’s probably going to be when I have longer holes in the schedule so I can focus on it. Because if I only go home for a week, I’m not going to be in songwriting mode. I can’t just turn it on like that.
So, where is the album going music-wise looking at those new songs? You’ve both matured as songwriters since the last album.
Jon: It’s so early, I can’t tell you where Hansi’s going to go lyrically. That’s his department. I help him when he needs me to, and I’ve written the lyrics for a couple of songs. In terms of music, it’s actually pretty different but I know that there will be… It’s me and Hansi, it’s going to be the next step. It’s going to be completely authentic, I can tell you that. I’m looking forward to seeing what it sounds like too.
Have you considered a tour with Blind Guardian?
Jon: We’ve talked about it. It’s a difficult thing, but I’m sure it’s going to happen again someday. It would be great to do something at the point, maybe our anniversary. Iced Earth’s 30th anniversary is next year, since the name change. But 2021 would be the anniversary of our first tour together with Blind Guardian. That would be pretty cool to do. But we’ll see, it’s always about the budgets and schedules.
Do you have any plans to celebrate the 30th anniversary? A special album?
Jon: I don’t think it’s going to be a special album, but I think we’re going to try to do a special show. But I’m not sure what that’s going to look like yet. We’re just discussing it now.